What Is an Internship: Explained for College Students

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An intern at work in a modern office setting, depicting the concept of 'What is an Internship' for GradSimple's blog.

Time to Read: 6 minutes

Have you ever wondered what truly sets apart successful graduates as they step into the professional world? The answer often lies in one key experience: internships. In today’s competitive job market, understanding what is an internship and why getting one is important is critical.


  • Crucial Experience: Internships provide essential real-world exposure and practical skills, significantly impacting career readiness and employability in a competitive job market.
  • Professional Networking: Through internships, students gain invaluable industry insights, develop professional networks, and enhance their understanding of their chosen field.
  • Boost to Job Market Success: Internships, especially paid ones, increase the likelihood of job offers post-graduation and can lead to higher starting salaries, highlighting their importance in career development.

What is an Internship?

An internship is a short-term work experience offered by companies and organizations to students or recent graduates. This opportunity allows you to apply what you’ve learned in college in real-world situations, gain practical skills, and understand the dynamics of a professional environment.

Typically, internships range from 10 to 12 weeks. It’s a chance to test the waters in your chosen field, gain essential skills, and make informed decisions about your career path. Internships also serve as a platform for building professional networks and gaining insights that textbooks alone cannot provide.

Internships come in two main forms: paid and unpaid. While paid internships offer compensation, unpaid ones provide invaluable experience and industry insight. It’s important to note that the legality of unpaid internships varies, with certain criteria needing to be met to ensure fairness and compliance with labor laws.

The Current State of Internships

Nowadays, practical real-world experiences are more valuable than your academic qualifications.

92% of employers viewed skills-based hiring as more effective than a traditional resume

Parker Dewey

Statistics reveal a significant trend: internships are increasingly becoming a common and expected part of a student’s educational journey. With the rise of competitive job markets, internships offer an edge, providing hands-on experience and a deeper understanding of industry standards and expectations.

There is no substitute for the on-the-job experience and competency development that opportunities like internships provide.

Shawn Vanderziel, NACE Executive Director

The demand for internships varies across industries, but there’s a clear uptrend in particularly competitive fields like technology, finance, and consulting. On the flip side, unpaid internships, though less financially rewarding, offer rich learning experiences, especially in sectors like non-profit, government, and social services.

On average, paid interns get more than twice as many job offers as those who participate in an unpaid internship or no internship at all.  

National Association of
Colleges and Employers (NACE)

Despite the differences in compensation, both paid and unpaid internships have value. They offer a real-world context to classroom learning, helping students to apply their knowledge, develop essential skills, and build professional networks.

Benefits of Internships

Internships serve as a launchpad for professional and personal development, providing a unique opportunity to apply classroom knowledge in real-world scenarios.

Skill Development and Practical Experience: Internships are about putting theory into practice. They offer a chance to hone skills in a real-world environment, providing insights that can’t be found in textbooks. This practical experience is invaluable, helping you understand the nuances of your chosen field.

Networking and Industry Exposure: Internships open doors to professional networks. You’ll meet mentors, industry experts, and fellow aspiring professionals. These connections can be vital for future job opportunities and provide a deeper understanding of your industry.

Enhanced Employment Opportunities: Internships significantly boost your employability. Employers value the practical experience that internships provide, often viewing it as a sign of your commitment and capability in your field. This hands-on experience makes your resume stand out, giving you an edge in the job market.

Students within the field of humanities and social sciences received 26.3% more job interview requests compared to their peers without internship experience.

Stijn Baert, ScienceDirect

A Test-Drive for Your Career: Internships offer a unique chance to explore different career paths. They allow you to experiment with various roles and industries, helping you make informed decisions about your career direction.

Soft Skills Acquisition: Beyond technical skills, internships help develop essential soft skills like communication, teamwork, problem-solving, and adaptability. These skills are crucial in any job and are highly valued by employers.

Financial Gain: Paid internships offer financial compensation, making them an attractive option for many students. They often come with a higher likelihood of job offers post-internship, as employers invest in potential future employees.

On average, 68.3% of interns receive full-time position offers upon graduation.

National Association of
Colleges and Employers (NACE)

The average pay in these roles varies by industry, with tech, finance, and consulting sectors typically offering the most lucrative opportunities.

Valuable Experience: While unpaid internships do not provide direct financial benefits, they offer valuable experience and industry insights. They are common in sectors like non-profit and government organizations. It’s important for students to weigh the experience against the lack of financial compensation.

Long-Term Financial Impact: The experience gained in internships can impact starting salaries post-graduation. Paid internships tend to lead to higher starting salaries compared to their unpaid counterparts or having no internship experience. This difference underscores the long-term value of internships in shaping a graduate’s career trajectory.

While the financial aspects of internships vary, both paid and unpaid opportunities provide crucial experiences that can significantly influence a graduate’s early career path and financial prospects.

Internships and Job Market Success

Internships play a transformative role in bridging the gap between academic knowledge and professional success.

The job success rate for individuals with internship experience is notably higher. Statistics show that paid internships particularly boost the likelihood of job offers post-graduation. This trend underscores the value of internships in today’s job market, where practical experience is highly regarded by employers.

Employers are more concerned about competency and skills. So, candidates who can demonstrate experience, knowledge, and ability through their resume and applications will have the competitive edge.

Shawn Vanderziel, NACE Executive Director

In fact, the latest research from NACE’s Job Outlook 2023 research shows that employers are increasingly putting more weight on internships as opposed to GPA. Just 37% of respondents cited planning to use GPA as a screening tool in the new year. This is in line with our insights on whether GPA matters when it comes to job search after graduation.

Moreover, internships often lead to full-time job opportunities within the same organizations. The experience gained, networks built, and skills honed during an internship can position you as an ideal candidate for future roles in the company.

In essence, internships are a key ingredient in the recipe for career success. They offer a real-world context to your academic achievements, making you a more competitive and well-rounded candidate in the job market.

The Bottom Line

Internships offer invaluable experiences, from skill development and networking opportunities to enhancing your employability. Its also a chance for you to get an early taste of different career paths. Whether paid or unpaid, the experience you gain is extremely valuable and will help you stand out in the job market.

What steps will you take today to leverage internships for your career growth?

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